Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 25, 2020

The Hard Parts Are Still To Come

At last we have a baseball season – of sorts – to look forward to, and the process of putting the schedule in place sure went well, didn’t it? Okay, at the moment that assertion might charitably be called delusional, but as torturous as the struggle between MLB and the Players Association over terms of the abbreviated 2020 campaign was, it may yet wind up looking like the easy part. For ahead lies the uncertain and possibly outright dangerous task of 30 teams playing 900 games in 28 cities over 10 weeks in the middle of a pandemic. Then not very far down the road, at the end of what we all hope will be a full and normal 2021 season, owners and players return to the table to negotiate a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, a vastly more consequential deal than the one for which agreement just proved so stubbornly elusive.

In the past few days, the immediate risks have been highlighted by the surging number of athletes and others, in sports that have already restarted or are about to do so, identified as infected with the COVID-19 virus. Two players and two caddies on the PGA Tour, which returned to action two weeks ago. Ezekiel Elliott and several Dallas Cowboys teammates, as the NFL steams along toward the opening of training camps in late July. A long and growing list of college football players, as campuses have opened for team practices. And of course there was a wave of positive test results among minor leaguers and team employees at multiple spring training facilities in both Florida and Arizona that led to the closure of all camps and MLB’s decision that every team would conduct practice sessions in preparation for the coming short season at its home stadium. Though that is hardly a guarantee of safety, a point driven home by the announcement that four-time All-Star outfielder Charlie Blackmon was one of three players on the Colorado Rockies who tested positive after working out at Coors Field.

That partial list touches multiple sports, but it doesn’t include several tennis players who contracted the virus while playing on an exhibition tour organized by world number one Novak Djokovic that featured crowded nighttime parties and a purposeful rejection of social distancing guidelines among both players and fans at matches. But surely such willful idiocy, in addition to proving that the best tennis player in the world possesses enormous arrogance but no common sense, is unique. Or is it? The plan for baseball does not envision sequestering players or team personnel once they leave the stadium, and it stretches credulity to imagine that every player on each expanded roster and all the support personnel needed to stage the games will constantly adhere to MLB’s guidelines.

Those protocols are set forth in a 113-page operations manual that will govern this unique season. That’s three times as long as the document provided to PGA Tour pros, so perhaps baseball will be three times as safe. Then again, it’s the exact same length as the NBA’s manual, and the basketball league has the advantage of planning to play within a bubble at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports near Orlando. Though given Florida’s spiking infection numbers the players who will soon assemble at Disney World are surely hoping the NBA’s bubble doesn’t burst. The unpleasant truth is that no one really knows whether any league’s precautions will be sufficient, though each day’s headlines make clear the desperate fragility of a schedule that envisions thirty teams working out or playing every day from next week until late October when a champion is crowned. Once negotiations finally ended and commissioner Rob Manfred imposed the short season plan, bookmakers wasted no time in setting every team’s odds of winning the World Series. Perhaps they should instead be allowing fans to gamble on whether baseball makes it to the Fall Classic.

Quite apart from any parochial rooting interest, all fans should hope to see a 2020 World Series, for the Great Game being forced to shut down would mean it had been visited by a ghastly degree of illness or worse. But if fortune should smile on baseball this year, the short season will be but prelude to a likely confrontation in the fall and winter of 2021 that will make the recent back and forth between the MLBPA and the owners look like a polite disagreement over afternoon tea. There’s been general acknowledgement that the major obstacle to reaching consensus on the terms of play this year was the profound lack of trust between the parties, and it’s hard to conceive of anything happening between now and next year to change that.

A generation of younger fans has never known the wrenching dislocation of a work stoppage in baseball. With labor peace since the 1994-95 strike, another generation recalls such events only dimly. But that strike, which brought the 1994 season to an abrupt halt in early August and ultimately shortened the following campaign to 144 games, was the eighth time in little more than two decades that play had been interrupted by labor issues. Despite the lack of current collective memory, the sport’s history has plenty of chapters focused on struggles between players and owners over myriad issues.

With teams unilaterally altering the basic economic understanding upon which players’ careers have been built, costing midlevel free agents millions of dollars while manipulating the service time of younger, cost-controlled players, with teams purposely tanking and putting an intentionally inferior product on the field for multiple seasons in hopes of building up future prospects, and with owners steadfastly refusing to open their books to substantiate their claims of little or no profits, baseball seems primed for a return to the bad old days of labor strife.

Just as fans should pray this year’s short schedule is played to its conclusion, they should also hope next season does not end in such discord. In an interview this week Manfred, after specifying that the pronoun he was using encompassed himself, his staff, owners, the Players Association and individual players, said “we owe it to our fans to be better than we’ve been the last three months.” Those are good words, and as recently noted in this space, words matter; words can be powerful symbols. But as the steward of the Great Game, Manfred should know that symbols alone are not enough. The legend of the 1932 World Series is not just about Babe Ruth, down to his final strike, symbolically pointing to center field. It’s also about what he did next.

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